Poisonous furry caterpillars that look like wigs are popping up in Virginia

A furry puss caterpillar, the larva stage of the southern Flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis. IrinaK/Shutterstock
  • The furry puss caterpillar, the larval stage of the southern flannel moth, is one of the most poisonous caterpillars in the US.
  • According to the Virginia Department of Forestry health team, these caterpillars have been spotted in the eastern part of the state.
  • The puss caterpillar’s hairy coat hides venomous spines – its sting can send people to the hospital.
  • The health team warned Virginians to “#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

No matter how cute and fuzzy this critter looks, don’t touch it.

This toupée-like insect is one of the most poisonous caterpillars in the US. Named the furry puss caterpillar —perhaps for its resemblance to less venomous house cats— people who brush up against its hairy coat have a painful reaction.

And according to the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), there have been reports of the puss caterpillar in a few eastern Virginia counties.

#SocialDistance away from this caterpillar!” the VDOF wrote on its FacebookTuesday.

The caterpillars can fall from trees and lodge in people’s clothes

The insect’s fuzzy veneer hides venomous spines. As the caterpillars grow in size, before they change into equally fuzzy southern flannel moths, their venom becomes more toxic.

Southern flannel moth
Southern flannel moth after emerging from its cocoon. Brett Hondow/Shutterstock

Their painful sting is followed by swelling and redness, but those who get stung may also experience symptoms like headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, seizure, and in rare cases, abdominal pain, according to a 2005 paper published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Some people may even experience multiple stings because the caterpillars can fall from trees and become lodged in clothes, “particularly shirt collars,” the authors wrote.

The Florida Poison Information Centre (FPIC) recommends treating puss caterpillar stings by placing scotch tape over the sting, then peeling it off to remove the spines.

Its sting can send people to the hospital

Furry caterpillar
A puss caterpillar, the larva stage of the southern Flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis. Wikimedia Commons

In 2018, a puss caterpillar dropped from a tree onto 5-year-old Adrie Chambers who was playing in the yard of her Texas Daycare.

Chambers’s arm went numb, and she was rushed to the hospital where she was treated with steroids and made a full recovery.

A Florida teenager also got stung in 2018 and was hospitalized shortly after. His mother published a Facebook post about her son’s sting, which was reportedly shared hundreds of thousands of times. And in May 2017, a mum recalled hearing a “blood-curdling scream” after her 5-year-old son stepped on one of the caterpillars.

Outbreaks of puss caterpillar stings even prompted public school closures in Texas in 1923 and 1951.

The puss caterpillar is found on the East Coast between Florida and New Jersey, but its habitat extends as far west as Arkansas and Texas, according to a guide published by the University of Florida’s Entomology Department.

According to the VDOF, the caterpillars eat oak and elm leaves but can be found in parks or near structures.

Ren Oliver’s family spotted one of the furry insects on a deck when eating dinner in Tappahannnock in early September.

“My 5-year-old son saw it and said, ‘Don’t anyone touch it! It’s probably poisonous!'” Oliver told Business Insider.

Furry puss caterpillar
A furry puss caterpillar on a deck in Tappahannnock, VA, September 2, 2020. Courtesy of Ren Oliver

After reading about how venomous they are, Oliver’s father picked up the caterpillar with paper towels and flung it in a nearby river.

“Thankfully we escaped it but it was the wildest looking thing and so appropriate for 2020. Just bizarre,” Oliver said.

Caroline Praderio contributed reporting to this story.